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Unexpected Lessons from Working Abroad

Posted on 02.09.21 by Donna Montoya ‘04 in College of Arts & Science, School of Business

What do a preschool teacher, a real estate agent, and a language institute supervisor all living in Mexico have in common?

Donna Montoya '04Well… they were all me!

After graduating from Linfield in 2004, I moved to Mexico and got to discover some fun careers while making my way as an expat in a foreign country and second language. I had majored in economics and Spanish, and spent time in Mexico as a Linfield student, both as part of my studies and for personal trips. Realizing that I wanted to make the move more permanent when I graduated, I took the leap – knowing that I had no idea what to really expect. I am so glad I did.

While there were definitely difficult situations, I spent a little more than three years exploring, learning, connecting and living part of my life that I’ll get to keep with me forever. Here are some of the things I learned along the way.

Working abroad is an adventure in itself!

Part of this adventure was actually being legally allowed to work. I had gone abroad and then found my jobs while I was there. This meant that I needed prove to immigration why my employer(s) needed me. I also realized that I should have done more research before moving down because I had to have things like my high school and Linfield diplomas mailed to me, and gather a lot of other information – all to be officially translated!

While some expats work with an organization that helps set up immigration status, I did not. It was a good way to learn the types of laws to watch out and plan for if I ever decide to work abroad in the future. It also made me appreciate anyone else who was navigating working as a person in a foreign country. Besides the legal part, finding work, interviewing, and starting new jobs, all in a new country and second language put a whole new spin on getting a job. These were experiences I am proud to know I accomplished – it isn’t easy! But well worth it, and doable.

I believe in anyone else who puts their mind to live and work abroad, and I appreciate their hard work.

I mopped all wrong.

And washed clothes all wrong. And warmed up my tortillas all wrong. I even did things all wrong at work! Don’t worry, I learned how to do all this (and much more) the right way. Of course, we know there’s not a definitive right or wrong way to do this type of stuff. But there are cultural norms and very good reasons why some things are done a certain way.

I had moved from a low context culture into a high context culture, I had immersed myself into a culture where relationships came before getting down to business. Family connections were stronger. Kisses on the cheek were expected when you walked into work in the morning. Living and working abroad helped me understand the differences in cultures on a very different level, and it helped me see that something I thought as universal as arriving at work can look very different in Mexico from what it looked like in my home country.

Working in Mexico gave me a much deeper respect for the differences in norms and how we take some customs for universal truths that really, aren’t universal at all. And that there is no one right way to mop. Unless I was doing it the wrong way.

Donna eating a meal in MexicoYou can make a Thanksgiving meal out of anything!

One Thanksgiving, I was teaching at the language institute and I decided that I wanted to show my students a Thanksgiving meal. No turkey? A $5 roast chicken. No pumpkin pie? Steamed street sweet potatoes. It was really fun to put together a meal that reminded me of home but was a fusion with the food of where I lived. But more importantly, I got to share my culture and tell stories and be a bridge. I got to share a piece of myself with my students. I was a representative of my country, and people wanted to know what I was about.

I realized then, that I shouldn’t take for granted that my friends, students, and co-workers saw me as a tie to a place that to them, was exotic and far away, and that felt perhaps out of reach. It became my role to always be open to questions about my country or my traditions because people craved learning from me as I craved being immersed in my temporary home.

It counted.

This was not just a way to avoid working. Or a way to travel around and shirk responsibilities. This was not a way to ignore growing in life, or trying to escape anything. It counted. I had some wonderful jobs that helped me decide what types of careers I cared most about.

I learned that:

  • I was really good at studying maps and navigating city streets on my own (this was pre-GPS). I learned how to lead others, and how to negotiate.
  • I liked setting up a preschool but I didn’t necessarily like teaching in it.
  • My personality needed a setting that allowed for me to thrive as an introvert.
  • Lots of intricate laws and policies that I had to interpret.
  • I loved being in an academic environment.
  • There were some jobs and living situations I’d like to have again, and some I’d be avoiding in the future.
  • What living abroad meant first-hand, and it helps me now empathize with others. 
  • Remain cognizant that while there are cultural values that I may never really know from around the world, I need to respect them.

Of course, I also learned what life was really like in my part of Mexico, which opened my eyes and heart to people who lived there. Yet, it was my responsibility to make sure that everything I learned and what I grew from could help form my decisions and show my abilities – wherever I lived.

That is why it counted.

Since returning to the U.S., I have worked in banking, gotten my master’s degree, and of course, returned to university life and now work here at Linfield. My life and career paths have certainly been a reflection of the brave and hopeful decision of living and working abroad. I am very thankful for it, and for the unexpected ways in which I got to see life and work, grow personally, and yes – even learn to mop.